Mark is sometimes thought of as the bare-bones gospel. Matthew and Luke had to fill out his story to give the complete picture of Jesus. This may be true but it is important to take Mark on his own terms. In the case of the temptation in the wilderness Mark predictably lacks most of the familiar details. However, this does not mean he lacks a full understanding of Jesus’ temptations.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him(Mark 1:12-13).
Here we find no mention of being taken atop the Temple and offered all the kingdoms of the world. Neither is there mention of the offer to turn stones into bread. Mark leaves his readers to wonder what happened those forty days in the wilderness.
Mark does not leave us entirely clueless though. There are other scenes of temptation which need to be examined. In the middle of the gospel, chapter 8, after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah he rebukes Jesus for predicting his death and resurrection. Peter tempts Jesus to forgo the cross. In his mind the cross is for criminals, not the Messiah. Jesus famously responds to Peter’s attempts “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”(Mark 8:33). Here Mark suggests that the temptation of Satan, is to refuse the cross and cling to one’s life.
In another, final scene of temptation, Jesus is mocked by the chief priests and scribes passing him on the cross. “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now so that we may see and believe”(Mark 15:31-32). Again he is tempted to leave the cross and live. It is this temptation that Jesus was first offered in the wilderness by Satan. Thrice he is tempted and thrice he remains faithful to God. He could have left the wilderness and never proclaimed the good news. He could have become the warrior Messiah Peter dreamed of. He even could have stepped down from the cross.
This temptation to forgo the cross is exactly the temptation his disciples faced as well. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”(Mark 8:34). Instead of following their teacher, fear of the cross seizes them and they flee. Instead of denying himself Peter denies his Lord so that he too can avoid the cross.
Jesus was tempted with the most natural of inclinations. Just like us, he was tempted with the words, “save yourself”.